Teacher Burnout: A Response
Updated: Aug 22
The Times Educational Supplement has released a number of articles recently relating to teacher burnout in the face of workload at the start of the Autumn Term. In ‘Teachers, remember to make yourself a priority’ https://www.tes.com/news/teachers-remember-make-yourself-priority Tom Rees’ describes his descent into illness caused by what he calls ‘burnout’. Rees’ school, of which he was headteacher, successfully passed an Ofsted inspection before he sought professional help for stress-related illness.
Then, ‘Ofsted plan to spend longer in schools’ https://www.tes.com/news/exclusive-ofsted-plan-spend-longer-schools reveals that some schools in the UK have not been inspected for a number of years by Ofsted. The concept of Ofsted under pressure, possibly experiencing burnout, has an air of irony to it given that they are often cited as the cause of stress. Meanwhile, ‘Headteachers, don’t let your NQT’s burn out’ https://www.tes.com/news/headteachers-dont-let-your-nqts-burn-out suggests that headteachers should take responsibility for their new recruits by managing newcomer workload. The term burnout is assumed to be self-explanatory in all of this: good teachers trying too hard and not managing their work life balance effectively. Of course, this can easily happen.
If teachers feel liberated to discuss work-related illness openly then it is certainly important that we should listen, but at the same time let us be aware of what we are saying, or implying, in the choice of terms. Burnout focuses the problem upon the individual who has ‘burned out’: someone has run themselves into the ground, having been working long hours and has reached a point when professional help is the only way forward. Consequently, someone else must cover for those colleagues who have been signed off with long term sickness. Also, wider families (including young children) are affected and there’s the small matter of damage to the teaching profession’s reputation – some prospective teachers might think better of joining up. The cost of stress-related illness certainly mounts up.
My own reaction upon reading these recent articles is that I am not at all clear what the professionals are saying, whether it be the ones who suffered or the ones who are warning others of the problem. I am not sure whether burnout describes the nature of the problem. If someone burns out maybe they need coping mechanisms or support in issues, like controlling difficult classes. Give them the support and they will not burn out or will eventually recover and stabilise. Discussing these articles in the light of teacher burnout overlooks the possibility that the very principles of education sometimes collapse and are replaced by something vacuous.
Burnout or demoralisation
I was alerted to the difference between burnout and demoralisation by Doris Santoro in her paper, ‘Good Teaching in Difficult Times’. Santoro talks of “moral rewards” which are “endangered in these difficult times” (Santoro, 2011, p. 3). That we are in difficult times is doubtful – one could equally argue that we live in highly exciting times, when great changes are happening. But “moral rewards” is an interesting turn of phrase. It gets to the heart of what colleagues expect from the profession and what they think that teaching is about. When I read that individuals have left work ‘in the city’ and have taken up a teaching job on a fraction of their previous salary, it is clear that status and income are not often teacher motivators.
Generally speaking, teachers have professional morals, a sense of what they think that teaching is about. When those morals are not shared by the profession teachers become, in Santoro’s words, victims of “demoralisation” (p.3) and it is not the same as burnout. When a teacher burns out it implies that they have been working too hard, which might imply that they still believe in what they are doing. Perhaps a given sufferer lacked resources or pushed himself too far. Either way this is not necessarily a fault of the school or the wider profession. Where institutions are to blame is when core principles are abandoned and when teachers are expected to work hard against the interests of their students. This could be burnout initially, but the real problem is that it is demoralising.
Former Independent journalist, Johann Hari, recently published a book about depression and anxiety entitled, Lost Connections (2018). He dismisses anti-depressants as a treatment for depression, despite being an advocate and user for many years. Instead, he favours reconnecting with what matters, including the importance of meaningful work. Work leads to depression when it becomes devoid of meaning. In this way, a teacher, or any other employee, could easily have a job in which the hours are short and still develop depression or suffer work-related stress. Note how workload is not always the problem – it is what the worker does and how much control they have.
Is teaching meaningful? I wanted to hear more from these TES writers about their workload: what exactly were they doing shortly before burning out? And what are the NQT’s starting in September this year doing with their time? I suspect some of it is the soulless bureaucracy that we all know has little to do with education. I’m referring to much of the endless grade predictions, target setting, (novel-length) planning documents, individual education plans, department handbooks, department reviews, appraisal documents, risk assessments and so on. In short, if someone in a management position in education expects to see it written down, it deserves immediate scrutiny about whether it benefits teaching and learning. I am not saying, incidentally, that these documents have never been of any use to anyone: I am saying that they should never be a prescribed requirement for any school. I trained with a maths teacher in 1997 whose desk was a mess and whose mind was brilliant. His students loved him and his training mentors hated him (you do the math!).
Teachers would be well served if they returned to (or began with) the value of speaking to students, speaking to colleagues, speaking to parents and reading. Even Ofsted are buckling under the pressure of turning over the endless paperwork that they have demanded to see, but cannot manage to inspect, across all UK schools. Ofsted right now are like the poorly organised teacher who sets a long worksheet for homework and suddenly realises that there is no time to mark thirty long worksheets. Educational inspectors, who after all have experience and thoughts to offer, do not have time to read much of the nonsense that they insisted was written.
Quality teaching or successful teaching
In an engaging article, Fenstermacher and Richardson (2005) focus on the importance of quality teaching, as distinct from successful teaching. A teacher who teaches students how to kill someone with a blow to the head is successful if the student learns the task and carries it out. But this is not quality teaching, they argue, because of the nature of the task. They have a point. If you want to congratulate successful teachers then you would have to consider those who trained terrorists how to kill: it’s hard to argue that they have not been successful as far as their objectives go.
Instead Fenstermacher and Richardson (2005) make the point that quality teaching must be “aimed at some worthy purpose” (p.6). If you wish to understand and prevent teacher attrition rates, demoralisation in schools or the reputational demise of the profession, then think about the principles of the teaching profession. How do we judge good teaching? In Fenstermacher and Richardson’s view, there are four elements required for student learning to take place and “good teaching” is only one of them (p.8). Learner willingness, a supportive environment and the opportunity to teach and learn are equally important. Someone who works hard in a role that they believe to have real meaning is much less likely to suffer stress-related illness.
Burn out implicates responsibility upon the teacher to cope and be ‘hardy’; demoralisation is when a profession loses principles. Work should be meaningful; teachers need to feel that what they are doing with their day is making a difference. Top down bureaucracy is not meaningful when it is prescribed; teachers should write down only what they believe is necessary to write down. There is a difference between quality teaching and successful teaching; the latter is much less desirable in order to make teaching meaningful.
Fenstermacher, G. D. and Richardson V. (2000) ‘On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching’ (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) http://www-personal.umich.edu/~gfenster/teaqual14ss.PDF
Hari, J. (2018) Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unex-pected Solutions (Bloomsbury Circus)
Santoro, D. A. (2011) ‘Good Teaching in Difficult Times: Demoralisation in the Pursuit of Good Work’ cited in American Journal of Education, Vol 118, No. 1 (The University of Chicago Press) https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1086/662010.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A2052e7f54a18dc940c14a1d8cd7a6a91